The Castle in the Village Metaphor: A simple picture of common relationship dynamics

As we negotiate the often tumultuous, landscape of relationships (finding them, beginning them, maintaining them, and sometimes ending them) many psychology theorists have noted a common dynamic. A pattern of interaction seems to occur over and over in some people (to greater or lesser degree).

I have simplified this complex dynamic in a metaphor that I use with my clients. It helps to understand why some kinds of people seem to show up over and over again in our lives. It can also help to more readily recognize, prepare, and more effectively engage these kinds of situations. I call it the Castle in the village story.

Imagine the world is populated with small fiefdoms all throughout the land. Each has a king or queen, who lives behind meticulously erected castle walls. The purpose of these walls is to present the appearance of security, safety, impenetrability and protect the kings and queens from the messiness and dangers of those outside the walls. In people, this is analogous to a strategy many of us use to cope with the vulnerable feelings of strong emotions. This can be an extremely effective strategy actually. These individuals garner respect and admiration, from those outside the walls, and can often get others to do things for them.

There is just one problem. Although the kings and queens may have done an excellent job of keeping uncomfortable feelings outside and blocking such experiences from awareness, the strategy eventually breaks down. What do you think happens to the kings and queens’ capacity for empathy for the feeling folks in the village? Or even other kings and queens? The attitude is essentially “I have done such an excellent job at cutting off my messy emotions. I am certainly not interested in knowing about yours!” This approach creates division, isolation, and can come crashing down in full blown depression.

Now, here is where it gets interesting. The folks in the village tend to be the creative types; they enjoy love and hate, and close intense connections. They fight, they make up. A lot of chaos in the village sometimes, but these folks are authentic! Sometimes though, the folks in the village of feelers get a bit overwhelmed by all this up and down. They look up to the king or queen in the castle and imagine how nice it must be to have things tidy and clean and drama free! 

So, given the chance, the feeling folks will do almost anything to get to live behind those walls. They will give up who they are, what they truly want, and be whatever the king or queen wants they want too. “Please!” they plead “just love me and take me in?” So the castle dweller eventually says “Why not?” It is so easy and a good deal. After all, the kings and queens have done such a good job at dismissing their own internal needs, why should it occur to them that other might have needs that differ? They just assume “We must want all the same things!"

Things go swimmingly in the first passion of this blissful union. Each cannot believe their good fortune. Our feeling villager has escaped the chaos and feels loved and cared for. Our castle dweller has found someone who does not disturb his/her tidy existence and keeps him/her warm at night.

As the villager feels more safe and comfortable herself, she begins to reconnect with her natural feelings and personal desires. When she/he attempts to assert needs that differ, the castle dweller retreats, pulls up the emotional walls even further. This of course activates the feeling villager to make more intense attempts to connect, feel heard, safe and not be abandoned….. Which of course makes our castle dweller very uncomfortable!  At this point he/she either shuts down further, or kicks her out of the castle outright!

And that my friends is the story of the Narcissist and Borderline Strategy patterns. This pattern of interaction is so so common, I am tempted to say it is Universal. The degree to which it is present in any relationship is, of course, dependent on the amount of stress the couple and or individuals are experiencing. Couples therapists call this the attack/withdraw dynamic. But the message here is that the key to healthy emotion regulation, is to learn to flexibly move between healthy self preservation (raising the castle wall) and flexible adaptive functioning amongst the villagers.

Who do you tend to be in your relationship? I would love to hear any comments!

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